Response to Applied Anthropology Discussion – Barry Bainton

A few weeks ago I started a discussion about applied anthropology and the role of theory. Here is a response to my initial post from Barry Bainton:

The question, “where is the theory in applied anthropology?, is an old one. It is one I have dealt with for the past 40 years and this is what I have learned.

You ask, “Why is academic anthropological theory and sometimes training of so little use to researchers using ethnography as a research technique?”

The simple answer is that it not the job of academic anthropologist to do so. Academic anthropology is based on the university’s paradigm of professionalism.

This paradigm (using Kuhn’s definition) is part of the larger institutional culture of free and open dialogue and sharing of information directed toward finding “Truth.” The research subsystems of scholarship and science promotes the search for truth by limiting the questions to be addressed to those arising from the dominate paradigm of the discipline at the time — regardless of the policy questions facing society or its members.

The applied anthropologist is a technician in the real world outside of the academic department. He/she is hired to provide answers (not questions) for a client seeking to make a “practical” decision related to the client’s self interest.

The applied anthropologist is asked to play the role of expert, not seeker, for applying ethnographic knowledge. The client expects the “bullet points” in the executive summary so that they can judge the value of the information and apply it to their problem. Even if you write a detailed report, the client will not read it. The detail only serves to justify a decision based on your conclusion after the fact, especially in the event that the decision is questioned.

As an applied anthropologist you must understand your client and the purpose they have in mind when they hire you.

You also ask, “How can academics create theory that speaks to applied fields and industry?”

This is the wrong question. The theory already exists in the broad sweep of behavioral and social science. The question is “How do you package the theory in an user friendly mode that will be meaningful to the client?”

Academics write for academics. Applied anthropologist are culture brokers who bridge the academic and real world cultures of their particular “people.” They write for non academic.

The theory that academic anthropologist should apply to communicating to the applied fields and industry are the basic ethnographic principles of “participant-observation,” and learning the native language and rituals. What do applied anthropologists need, not what do we want them to know?

If the applied anthropologist’s client wanted to be an anthropologist, she/he would study anthropology and not do what they are doing. But they don’t, and you can’t blame them for that short coming. Otherwise, there is no need for the applied anthropologist as a profession if every client can do it themselves.

Hope this is helpful.

I use the analogy to the legal profession. There are law school professors who research and write about jurisprudence, and then there are attorneys who practice their craft in the real world. Here they apply their legal training to help clients avoid problems; or they are trial lawyers who help their clients defend/advocate their interests. Applied anthropology lives in this real world. The applied anthropologist needs the added communication skill set to survive and prosper here.

Update on the Cultural Encyclopedia of Alcohol

For all the wonderful contributors and people who have followed this project with interest, I have a few updates on the Cultural Encyclopedia as it heads through the editing process.

At the end of February, I submitted the finished manuscript to Greenwood Press. This happened on time (thanks to prompt contributors and quick responses to my threatening e-mails). After a few revisions, at the end of March the press sent our manuscript to be copy edited. In the meantime, I selected the images that will be included in the book (this sounds easier than it is), along with the help of Greenwood staff. I have just received the copy edited manuscript and I will be reading it over the next week. Things are moving along at an excellent pace and I am told that we are well on track for publication later this year or early in 2011.

In other news, the marketing and editorial board of Greenwood Press met and decided to give us a new title, which will be Alcohol in Popular Culture: An Encyclopedia.

Applied Ethnographic Research – Where’s the theory?

Why is academic anthropological theory and sometimes training of so little use to researchers using ethnography as a research technique? How can academics create theory that speaks to applied fields and industry?

Recently, I had my first experience doing ethnography for industry. This was an eye-opening experience and it made me think about my training and the place of theory in applied anthropology. Let me explain: Initially, I was asked to carry out a literature review on the topic we intended to research in a 15-week project with a major multinational technology company. Ethnography was to be the main research technique used to study a very complex virtual and physical work environment. As I imagined, there was a great deal of academic literature on the topic we were studying. What surprised me was that it was largely useless for the type of applied work we were doing. First, my colleagues had no interest in reading lengthy articles that are written without any bullet points and where was the executive summary! Second, my colleagues had little or no formal training in anthropology and the references to canon pieces and general anthropological literature did not speak to their hands-on work reality. Finally, I realized that most of the publications seemed outdated as soon as they were published. Really, there must be something better out there but I was unable to find it.

This little experience left me wondering if theory can inform applied anthropology for industry? If so, what would it look like? I would like to have a discussion on this topic. What have others found? What solutions exist? What are their strengths and weaknesses? How can academics help industry folks doing mixed method research do ethnography better? How can we help give depth to their practice and analysis?

I called on a number of anthropology bloggers to enter into a discussion. The first post on this topic is by Krystal D’Costa on Anthropology in Practice. We hope that the conversation will grow and continue. Please feel free to link blog posts and leave comments.

My response will follow shortly.

The Story of Bottled Water

I’ve done research on the history of mineral water in Italy but I remain an adamant proponent of bottled water. Last year while working at the University of British Columbia, I got involved with helping a group of students petition the university to have water fountains repaired and put back into service. There cannot be enough water fountains in the world! Whenever I see one, I stop for a drink.

I came across this video on World Water Day and I thought it made some great points about America’s water problem.